A class in session at Kajang Prison in Selangor.

WHEN we think of higher education, the image that comes to mind is usually of universities or other forms of higher educational institutions such as vocational colleges. In our minds, access to higher education — and the chance to participate in it — signals great hope, aspirations and a chance to improve ourselves.

We tell ourselves that higher education can be the path to greater equality and happiness in society since it offers the hope of inclusion and advancement to those who partake in it.

What about the education of prisoners? Is this something that higher educationalists should also be concerned with?

One way of beginning an assessment of the importance of the issue is to understand its scope. How extensive is the exposure of the population to the prison and law enforcement sector? What kind of social and educational impact would offering higher education in prisons have? The following discussion will focus on American debates but the themes involved are relevant more broadly. In regards to the United States, Saskia Sassen provides us with some sobering statistics to answer the first question:

“At present, one in 100 Americans is incarcerated in a US state or federal prison or detained in a local jail awaiting trial. When those on probation or on parole are added, the total figure tops seven million people — one in 31 Americans.

“And if all people with an arrest or conviction record are counted, the number reaches 65 million people — one in four Americans. That the United States criminal justice system now touches overall 25 per cent of the population is quite extreme compared with most Global North countries.

“If there was ever an argument to be made for American exceptionalism, the mushrooming state and private corporate prison complex would likely be the proof.”

Given these understandably disturbing statistics, the book lying in front of me on my desk provides a response to the second question. It is titled College in Prison, by Daniel Karpowitz. It is unforgettable and provides an excellent insight into the benefits of providing higher education in prison and the benefits in regards to both excellence and inclusivity in education.

To provide some context which reinforces the description provided by Sassen, Karpowitz points out: “The American rate of imprisonment has increased 500 per cent since 1980 and the money spent on staffing prisons has increased over 400 per cent. Totaling about US$80 billion (RM347 billion) a year, state spending on prisons now often exceeds budgets for higher education.”

What does this tell us about American society and its priorities? What might be some of the benefits to society of rethinking the relationship and place of higher education and prisons? Karpowitz makes the following point: ‘’Regardless of whether or not we have ‘college in prison’, the two institutions share parallel roles in the reproduction of American privilege and inequality. Indeed, the dynamics of contemporary American inequality most closely track two divergent life-paths: through college on the one hand, prison on the other.”

In other words, these statistical descriptions of the incarceration and higher education systems tell us a lot about the priorities of American society and how privilege and inequality are sustained.

But what would be the benefits of college in prison? What are the benefits of changing these priorities? One socially measurable benefit is its effect on recidivism.

In an interview with Emily Tate in Inside Higher Ed, Karpowitz discusses the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) which is the basis of his book. He points out that: “The rate of recidivism at BPI, after 15 years, is about four per cent for those who participate and two per cent for those who complete a degree. The baselines are very high: recidivism is typically from 20 to 40 per cent. There are many ways to measure and mismeasure these effects, but there’s no question that engagement in higher education correlates with profound reductions in recidivism.”

So, there are socially objectifiable and measurable benefits to college in prison. However, Karpowitz points to three basic reasons why college belongs in prison which go beyond the argument made above.

The first is the moral argument which rests on “recognising that punishment is by no means the only or best mechanism for the pursuit of moral accountability”.

Secondly, there is the political argument. In regards to this argument Karpowitz quotes Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons on July 20, 1910. Churchill argued: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”

Karpowitz reinforces Churchill’s insight and argues that, “college in prison should be conceived less about how people in prison might change and more about how we, as a society increasingly defined by the scope and quality of our prisons, might change ourselves”.

The final argument Karpowitz offers for college in prison is not about crime and punishment but about higher education itself.

To maintain the commitment of higher education not just to excellence but also to inclusiveness as well requires seriously looking at where we could spend time and effort to advance an “inclusive excellence” agenda.

Karpowitz argues: “The perceived crisis in the academy is not about the poverty or ossification of our traditions but about our institutional failure to take the risks needed to find students in unconventional places and engage them at critical moments in their lives.”

Karpowitz makes an important argument which extends beyond the American example discussed above. It is worth reflecting upon.

James Campbell is a lecturer in Education in Australia.

Email him at jamesca@deakin.edu.au

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